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By Stephanie Wang, Tony Cook and Chelsea Schneider
Republican legislative leaders are considering whether to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians — but not transgender people.
State Sen. Travis Holdman presented the new proposal Thursday as an “alternative” to Senate Republicans’ widely criticized plan to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Senate Bill 344 would add sexual orientation as a protected class to state civil rights law, but it would not include gender identity. Instead, it would task a committee with studying transgender discrimination.
Holdman said this approach would avoid the heated controversy stemming from social conservatives’ fears over allowing transgender people to use public restrooms based on their gender identity, instead of their biological sex.
Some said the proposal illuminated an increasing acceptance of gay and lesbian people but also exposed an unfamiliarity or discomfort with transgender people.
The new proposal was immediately blasted by Democrats, LGBT rights advocates and influential business interests for “taking the ‘T’ out of LGBT.” And it remains to be seen whether lawmakers may be more supportive of this more socially conservative bill.
Still, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the new proposal will help lawmakers work toward a solution on the controversial issue.
“Senator Holdman’s legislation will help provide a framework for that discussion,” Long said in a statement. “It’s very possible that any final product will be amended along the way, but having multiple approaches for lawmakers to consider at the outset is beneficial to the process.”
Long said he plans to hold hearings this month in the Rules Committee, which he chairs, for both of Holdman’s civil rights proposals.
Late last year, also with Long’s backing, Holdman submitted Senate Bill 100 as a proposal to balance LGBT rights with religious liberty. But neither LGBT rights advocates nor religious conservatives were happy with the compromise.
Senate Bill 344 attempts to address some of the concerns that rose from Senate Bill 100. For example, it broadens an exemption for small businesses performing marriage-related services to employers with fewer than six employees, instead of fewer than four under Senate Bill 100.
Senate Bill 344 also would not override existing local nondiscrimination ordinances, as Senate Bill 100 would do. However, it would prevent cities from passing any new protections that are stricter than state law.
It also gets rid of a $1,000 fine for frivolous discrimination claims that had been part of Senate Bill 100.
By introducing two bills that address the same issue, political scientist Andy Downs said lawmakers end up crafting more thoughtful legislation by pulling pieces from one to amend the other, instead of looking at a single proposal and making hasty changes.
The inclusion of sexual orientation, but not gender identity, would likely make the measure “more palatable” to many Republican lawmakers, said Downs, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
But will it be palatable enough?
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, maintained that the legislature needed to pass stronger LGBT protections. He has filed Senate Bill 2, which proposes the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to state civil rights law without new religious exemptions.
“You cannot compromise on equal rights,” Lanane said in a statement. “Just a little bit of discrimination, as proposed in Senate Bill 100, will not suffice. Allowing even more discrimination, as SB 344 permits, is derailing the conversation on equal rights.”
While Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, said he wanted to see gender identity included in a civil rights expansion, he also noted that Senate Bill 344 contained some “improvements” from Senate Bill 100.
Alting introduced a proposal himself, Senate Bill 170, that would provide full protections to LGBT Hoosiers. As a city councilman who voted for Lafayette’s nondiscrimination ordinance years ago, Alting said he felt similar protections were “way, way overdue” at the state level.
However, he said his proposal made a statement on his stance, and he was committed to supporting Senate Bill 100.
“It’s no different from most bills,” Alting said. “It needs work. But the worst thing that can happen is to kill that bill.”
Many in the business community who say equal protections are needed to promote economic prosperity and also expressed a willingness to develop Senate Bill 100, reacting more strongly to Senate Bill 344 by opposing it.
In a statement, the Tech for Equality coalition said, “While it is a flawed bill, Senate Bill 100 represents a stronger effort to protect LGBT Hoosiers from legal discrimination.”
Indiana Competes, a business coalition that includes Eli Lilly and Co., Anthem, Cummins and Roche, said it would not support a law that did not include gender identity.
However, Indiana Competes initiative manager Peter Hanscom said the businesses want to work with lawmakers, understanding the reality of Republican supermajorities at the Indiana legislature, to make progress on “meaningful legislation.”
Because of its lack of transgender protections, Senate Bill 344 was criticized as a “non-starter” by Freedom Indiana, a grass-roots organization advocating for LGBT rights.
“It tells me that people are uncomfortable with how people look, not how people act,” said Freedom Indiana supporter Korvin Bothwell, a transgender man who owns Vital Skates in Fountain Square.
On the other side of the issue, Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana, a conservative advocacy group, called Senate Bill 344 “a bad law, written under the presses of political correctness, that we don’t need.”
“SB 344 is still based upon the flawed notion of special rights for changeable sexual behaviors,” Clark said, “and that the government picks and chooses how and where Hoosiers can exercise their constitutional freedoms of speech, conscience and religion.”
Lawmaker proposes alternative civil rights bill
Stephanie Wang, Tony Cook and Chelsea Schneider, Chelsea.Schneider@indystar.com 5:23 p.m. EST January 7, 2016
Still unknown: where the weight of other Republican leaders in the Statehouse will fall.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said once again Thursday that Republicans in his chamber plan to take a wait-and-see approach to the Senate legislation.
Bosma said he sees two primary sticking points in the debate.
“The two that I see as the toughest issues to balance are the provision of services during a wedding ceremony and the issue of the transgender population and the bathroom situation. I wish it wasn’t so sticky but it is,” he said. “I think most Hoosiers would agree these are the focal points of the debate. Do I have a strong opinion? I don’t. I’m looking for a solution like everyone else. I haven’t seen one yet.”
Gov. Mike Pence has not taken a position on the issue. He declined to comment on Holdman’s bill because he hadn’t had an opportunity to review the proposal in detail. Pence said he expects to address the proposed civil rights expansion when he presents his annual State of the State address on Tuesday.
“What’s clear to me, there is nothing simple about this issue. As I’ve said before, Hoosiers don’t tolerate discrimination against anybody, but we also cherish freedoms enshrined in our constitution. I think that as the debate goes forward the challenge is whether it’s possible to reconcile those two truths of the people of Indiana in the laws of our state,” Pence said.
Holdman said the governor is keeping “his cards very close to his chest.”
“I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the governor one-on-one,” Holdman said. “Just a few weeks ago, he and I met for over an hour in discussion. And to be honest, I was not able to walk away with any sense of what direction he was going to take on the issue.”